Eugene Cernan, the commander of the final Apollo lunar landing mission and the last human to walk on the moon, passed away Monday at the age of 82, NASA confirmed on its website. While no cause of death was listed, Space.com reported that he had been ill over the last few months.
A Captain in the US Navy before joining NASA, Cernan was part of three missions, including a pair of which took him to the lunar surface. He was the second American to walk in space, but is perhaps best known for being, to date, the last person to have stepped foot on the moon.
Born in Chicago in 1934, the astronaut retired from the Navy in 1976, stepping away from the US space agency after a 20-year-career. Cernan is survived by his wife, Jan Nanna Cernan, his daughter and son-in-law, Tracy Cernan Woolie and Marion Woolie, step-daughters Kelly Nanna Taff and husband, Michael, and Danielle Nanna Ellis and nine grandchildren.
“Truly, America has lost a patriot and pioneer who helped shape our country’s bold ambitions to do things that humankind had never before achieved,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. “Gene’s footprints remain on the moon, and his achievements are imprinted in our hearts and memories… He was one of a kind and all of us in the NASA Family will miss him greatly.”
In a separate statement, Cernan’s family said that they were “heartbroken” at his passing. “Even at the age of 82,” they added, “Gene was passionate about sharing his desire to see the continued human exploration of space and encouraged our nation’s leaders and young people to not let him remain the last man to walk on the Moon.”
A look back at an extraordinary life and career
Cernan was one of 14 men selected as part of NASA’s third class of astronauts in October 1963, according to the agency and Space.com. Three years later, he took his first voyage into space as a part of the Gemini 9A team, and later went on to serve as the Lunar Module Pilot of Apollo 10 in May 1969 and the Commander of Apollo 17 in December 1972.
As part of the Apollo 10 team, Cernan worked to complete the first comprehensive lunar-orbital qualification and verification test of the lunar lander, confirming both the stability and reliability of the Apollo command, service and lunar modules, according to NASA. He later joked that his team “painted the white line in the sky all the way to the Moon” for fellow NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong “so he wouldn’t get lost, and all he had to do was land.”
While part of the Apollo 17 crew, Cernan helped establish several new records for manned space flight, including those for the longest lunar landing flight (301 hours and 51 minutes), the longest lunar surface extravehicular activities (22 hours and 6 minutes), the most lunar samples collected and brought back to Earth (more than 248 pounds worth) and the longest time in lunar orbit (147 hours and 48 minutes). He and his colleagues were also responsible for capturing one of the most iconic photographs ever – the incredible image of Earth known as “The Blue Marble.”
“As a crew member of both the Apollo 10 and 17 missions, he was one of three men to have flown twice to the moon. He commanded Apollo 17 and set records that still stand,” said Bolden. “His drive to explore and do great things for his country is summed up in his own words: ‘We truly are in an age of challenge. With that challenge comes opportunity. The sky is no longer the limit. The word impossible no longer belongs in our vocabulary. We have proved that we can do whatever we have the resolve to do. The limit to our reach is our own complacency.’”
Image credit: NASA